Join us in the big tent

The CDBU is a broad church that aims to represent all who care for higher education, Mary Margaret McCabe writes

November 29, 2012

The damage done by recent headlong changes to the funding and structure of universities affects all those involved - whether students, academics, administrators or vice- chancellors.

Resisting that damage is a complex matter; it can be done only through a truly comprehensive debate among all those people, followed by concrete and fully documented proposals for change.

That is why, when the Council for the Defence of British Universities was launched this month, its first brief was to recruit members across the sector, at all kinds of institution and at all stages of their career. While concerns have been expressed in the pages of Times Higher Education about the diversity of its membership ("White knight defence", 22 November), the council's steering committee has been explicitly set up to foster a diverse representation. As the CDBU's website states: "In order to ensure that this committee is broadly representative of the regional, disciplinary, institutional, and ethnic diversity of the UK university system, its membership has deliberately been left incomplete until after the inaugural meeting and subsequent membership drive."

This openness is surely vital. For the sector is, and should be, plural and diverse. It must allow for different approaches to the nature and function of a university education - whether to prepare for a vocational career, to acquire the skills for innovation or business development or to learn for learning's sake. And that very diversity is under threat from a conception of universities as rivals in a higher education market, of degrees as commodities and of research as a way station to impact. For that conception is not innocent - it distorts and damages teaching and research to fit a single model, driven and shaped by market forces. It is for this reason - for the sake of the future, not the past - that senior academics and other distinguished figures have become involved with the council, because they saw, with consternation, the legacy that the present situation would leave to their successors.

The CDBU is now equipping itself for a major membership drive in the hope that all those involved in universities - from students to staff - will decide that joining in the call for reform is the best way to ensure that it is achieved. It is, indeed, a matter of collective responsibility: to complain from the sidelines is to avoid the burden of action altogether.

The problem of elitism is a real one, but it comes from the exponents of the new regime, not its opponents. As last week's action by the Nation Union of Students insisted, a major concern is whether the present structure of university funding promotes inequality. If students are customers and degrees are what they take away in their shopping baskets, we lose our grip on the idea that universities are a public good. We may end up thinking that it does not matter that some of our brightest and best are discouraged simply because a university education is commonly viewed as an expensive luxury. For our brightest and best, whoever and wherever they are, for universities and for society, it would be a disaster to think that way.

The council plans a series of rolling campaigns so that the problems we face may be broken down into different components, each rigorously researched and fully debated, involving as wide a group of people as are prepared to contribute. The public conception of the university needs to be thought through afresh, and this includes celebrating the diversity of our institutions. There are some obvious major issues to address - such as alternatives to the present funding structure and the existence and terms of the research excellence framework - but there are more particular concerns among the academic community, such as the problems facing early-career academics and the parlous situation for graduate support.

In identifying the most pressing issues, in carrying out the research and in coming up with proposals for change, the council depends on the whole academic constituency. In this time of crisis, we need to stand together.

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